A Holy Life in Hard Times
1 Nov 2008, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
A HOLY LIFE IN HARD TIMES
In the middle of the first century AD a pastoral letter was written to the Gentile Christians in the area of the Roman Empire that is now known as Asia Minor. It was written to the strangers scattered abroad through Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (Barclay, 1976: 137). These five Roman provinces were to cover the greater part of modern day Turkey, north of the Taurus mountains (Alexander, 1999: 752).
At the time this document was written there was an outbreak of letter writing in the Church by such notables as Clement of Rome, Barnabus, Ignatius and Polycarp and many others. While many of these letters were regarded as precious and while they enjoyed a local and temporary authority, they were not regarded as having authority throughout the church at large (Ibid). Hence, they were never accepted by the whole Church and as such were not included in the canon of Scripture (Ibid).
Of all the general Epistles that were written and included in the New Testament, the first letter of Peter is the best known and loved and possibly the most widely read. It has been described as affectionate, loving, lowly and humble with a pastoral spirit shining through any given translation of the Greek text (Ibid: 138). It is believed to have been written out of the love of a pastor's heart to help people who were going through hard times for their faith and on whom worse things were still to come (Ibid). The letter was obviously written to believers who were undergoing fiery trials and persecutions from hostile Jews and fanatical Gentiles, and to give them courage in the face of their adversities (Lockyer, 1986: 824). In Peter's letter, he was to remind them of all they have to be glad about and was to urge them to live lives that were to reflect the holiness of God (Alexander, 1999: 752).
Well, what do we know about this man called Peter?
Peter has often been called the 'apostle of hope' just as John was referred to as the 'apostle of love' and Paul as the 'apostle of faith' (Mears, 1983: 583). Because Peter in 1 Peter 5: 1 says he is 'a witness of the sufferings of Christ' he was to know the connection between suffering and joy and glory (Ibid: 584).
We are told in John 1: 40-42 that Peter first met Jesus through his brother Andrew. While we know that the two brothers came from the fishing village of Bethsaida, they were living at Capernaum when Jesus called them to leave their fishing business and follow Him (Alexander, 1999: 752). Prior to this, John 1: 35-42 tells us that they were disciples of John the Baptist.
Peter was to become the most prominent of Jesus' followers, and as such the New Testament gives a more complete picture of him than of any other disciple, with the exception of Paul (Lockyer, 1986: 824). As the recognised leader and spokesman of the apostles, he was also a member and leader of Christ's inner circle, the first to be called and the first to be named an apostle (Mark 1: 16-18; 3: 14-16; Ibid: 826).
Along with James and John, Peter, as part of this small group, was privileged to see some of Jesus' greatest miracles. Among these they were to witness the raising of a young girl from the dead (Mark 5: 37; Luke 8: 51). They were also present at Jesus' transfiguration where they were able to see Him in His true glory and they were there during Jesus' final agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 17: 1-2; 26: 37; Mark 14: 33). Peter was also the first of the apostles to recognise Jesus as the Messiah when he openly confessed Jesus as Lord while in the region of Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16: 13-17).
For all his fine words, Peter was eventually to deny his Lord when Jesus stood trial and this was a fact that he, himself was never to forget. Knowing his remorse, Jesus after His resurrection was to see Peter first before any of the other apostles (Alexander, 1999: 752). We can only marvel at the grace of God in granting such a blessing to one who did not seem to deserve it.
It was to be at Pentecost that Peter becomes the first of the Apostles to proclaim salvation to the Gentiles and in the Book of Acts 1-11 we see the key leadership role he played in the early Christian church (Lockyer, 1986: 826).
In his final years of preaching and teaching his wife was to accompany him on his travels and this is noted by the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor 9: 5. We further know that he was married because Matt 8: 14,15 tells us that Jesus healed his mother-in-law.
Peter at last died a martyr's death in Rome, being crucified by the Roman Emperor Nero no later than AD 67. According to tradition, at his own request, he was crucified upside down, considering himself unworthy to resemble his master in death (Mears, 1983: 584).
However, the picture of Peter we find painted in the Gospels is in direct contrast with that found in the reading of his own writings. The Gospels tend to portray an impulsive restless soul who was sometimes fearless and sometimes cowardly, even going so far as to deny his Lord with a curse. Though, in Peter's letters we discover a patient, restful and loving person with a courage that is purified and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. This amazing change is a wonderful illustration of the transforming work of God in the human life (Ibid).
At the time Peter was to write his letter to the scattered Christians in Asia Minor in the first century AD, the Roman Empire had a firm grip on its wide flung territories. It was a period when its technical, intellectual and artistic achievements were to be unrivalled anywhere. Her commerce was to enrich the world aided and advanced by a highway system that served as arteries of its trade and culture. Its architecture, banking and investment, agriculture, medicine and sanitary engineering had reached a highly sophisticated level of achievement, not so far removed from what we have today.
The private lives of the rich were seen in their luxurious homes that often included beautiful marble and mosaic floors, columns of alabaster, and walls decorated with brilliant murals and laden with costly stones. Handkerchiefs were in common use, and teeth were brushed with powder or paste. Many homes had bathtubs with hot and cold running water. Roman women used a wide range of cosmetics including perfumes, creams, oils, pastes, soaps and mascara. Along with these were many beauty accessories that included wigs, hairnets, combs, brushes, pumice stones, razors, scissors and tweezers. Leisure was to play a very important part in their lives with the opportunity to attend clubhouses, art galleries, libraries, reading rooms and music halls.
Their food supplies were to rival much of what we see today with a wide selection of dairy products, vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and meat, with pork and sausages being a favourite dish with those who were wealthy enough to afford it.
It was against this background that Peter was now to counsel his followers on how to live and how to be careful of their behaviour. In other words, this book was to give good plain advice on how this ought to be carried out.
While suffering 'fiery trials' from both Jews and Gentiles, these scattered Christians needed encouragement from one who knew what trials were all about. Consequently, his letter is believed to be one of the finest calls to live a quality Christian life, a holy life in hard times. It was to show us how to live as aliens in a hostile world (Wiersbe, 1991: 829).
His letter was written at a point when the general dislike of Christians was threatening to pass into active persecution under the reign of a Roman Emperor by the name of Nero. We need to remember that Peter, himself, was to eventually suffer under this cruel and selfish demi-God not later than AD 67.
History records that it was on the 19th July AD 64 that the great fire of Rome broke out and burned fiercely for three days and three nights before there was any reprieve. After this short pause in its destructive course, the fire broke out again with redoubled violence. The Roman populace were without a doubt as to who was responsible and put the blame squarely on Nero. To divert attention from himself Nero had to find a scapegoat and it was with the Christians that he was able to find an answer to his dilemma. It was with this group of people that Nero was able to find abundant material that could easily be perverted into false charges by anyone who was maliciously disposed to victimise them. With the blame for the fire now attached to them, it was not long before a savage outbreak of persecution was to commence. While originally confined to Rome it soon opened a gateway into any place where mob violence was seen to rule (Barclay, 1976: 146, 147, 149).
Christians were now to live constantly under the threat of these violent uprisings. They were in peril of their lives, not knowing when the terror of mob violence was likely to break out in their provincial area (Ibid: 150).
It was in the face of all this that Peter calls his people to hope and courage and to a way of living that would give lie to the slanders that were now being spread around the empire of Rome (Ibid).
As such, Peter's letter was not written to meet theological controversies, but was written to strengthen those men and women of that period whose lives were seen to be in jeopardy.
However, it is also a reminder to all Christians that while we are not enduring persecutions of heathen emperors today we are still meeting the same temptations of the adversary who seeks to win us away from the Christ who has endured everything for us. We are reminded, that while we have not been witnesses to the sufferings of Christ as was Peter, we can still be taught by the same Holy Spirit (Mears, 1983: 585)
As Peter commences to write this short letter, of only five chapters in length, we see the grace of God coming through as a major theme and, as such, this thread was to be found on every page. Peter begins in Ch 1: 1 through to Ch 2: 10 by first reminding his readers what God's grace has done for them in saving them.
He reminds these discouraged Christians that they are all redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus - that they have been purchased by the blood of God's Son who died, rose again and will come again to give them their inheritance. It is no wonder that Peter begins this letter with a song of praise (Ibid).
He reminds us all that we are 'kept' by the power of God (1: 5)
That we are being purified to stand with Christ (1: 7)
That we are born again by His word (1: 23)
That we are a chosen people (2: 9)
And that we have a great hope (1: 13)
It is with this last thought in mind that Peter tells his readers in 1Peter 1: 24-25 that men's hopes are dead hopes. Like cut flowers, they bloom awhile and then fade and die. In contrast he says in 1: 3, 23 that 'The Christian's hope is fresh and fruitful because it is a 'living hope', purchased by the living Christ and promised in the living word.
Because the reappearing of our Lord and Saviour is mentioned often throughout his letter, the influence of this 'blessed hope' on the Christian's way of life cannot be overlooked.
Peter now turns to advise on how Christians ought to live.
1 Peter 1: 13-16, 22, 23 tells us to gird up the loins of your mind, be sober and hope to the end. Fashion your life after the Lord Jesus Christ. Don't live your life after the old pattern. Be ye Holy, for I am holy. Love one another (1: 22). Seeing you are 'born again', he says, (1: 23) live like it. You are a new creature in Christ Jesus. Set your hope totally on what Jesus has done for you and what He will do for you when He returns.
Peter in Chapter 2: 1-3 now tells us that as Christians we need to abandon some pretty ugly things. We need to 'lay aside' all wickedness in our lives such as malice, deceitfulness, hypocrisy, envy, lying and all evil speaking. Anything that challenges the supremacy of Jesus in the life needs to go. His advice is to feed on the word of God as newborn babies feed on milk so we can grow spiritually strong and when we do this we will find out how full of grace God really is to enable us to be victorious. We all need to grow.
Peter then tells us that God is building a temple out of living stones. This suggests that the reborn Christian is more than an individual who is serving God; he belongs to a group that has Jesus at its cornerstone. This would seem to be a call for all Christians to think of themselves as belonging to a new spiritual order and, as such, all need to submit to the master builder (Nichol, 1957: 560). As a royal priesthood of believers all have freedom of access to God by virtue of Jesus' mediatorial work on our behalf. Conversely, Verse 8 tells us that those who are disobedient will stumble over the importance of the cornerstone because it offends them, but it is one stone they cannot ignore.
Up to this point Peter has been telling his readers how to behave in the larger game of life by exhorting them to walk worthy of their new calling (Mears, 1983: 589). In the remaining chapters, they are now being urged to glorify God before an ungodly and persecuting world.
His program is very simple.
He first begins by reminding us that we all just pilgrims on our way to an eternal city so we need to make sure that we are not tying our lives to stakes that will be shaken loose some day (Ibid). As John 17: 11, 14 tells us, we are in the world but not of it.
Secondly, he reminds us of the power of influence. In 2: 12 (NIV) he says that Christians are to 'live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.' Peter recognised truth in the saying that more are won to Christ by the true Christian life of the believer than by any other means. (Repeat) Their deeds speak so loudly that they cannot help believe what you say (Ibid: 590).
We need to remember the context in which this advice was to be given. Christians at that time were being accused by the State of some terrible crimes.
They were called atheists because they denied the heathen Gods. They were regarded as unpatriotic because heathenism was the official religion. To reject the state religion was considered an outrage against the state itself. Christians were also often obliged to depart from the normal social customs of the day and were often to carry the stigma similar to that of a criminal offender.
Peter's answer to all these charges was to be found in the superior moral life, that was to become part of every committed Christian. He believed that all must endeavour, with God's help, to live a life beyond reproach (Ibid). He says that Christians must live to glorify God.
Thirdly, he sets out to redefine the concept of freedom. Let's read what he says in 1 Peter 2: 16, 17. (NIV)
'Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king.'
Peter's counsel in these verses is that Christians are be good citizens and employees so that, in the end, God will be glorified 'for it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men' (1Peter 2: 15).
He continues with a further thought suggesting that patience with undeserved punishment is another way of testifying for Christ. Patience under these circumstances is when we show forth the grace of God. We see this in Christ's life when He submitted to His crucifixion and death and it is in this demonstration that we need to follow in His steps (Ibid: 591).
Peter now calls for believers to practice gentleness in several areas of life's relationships. His counsels in regard to a believer's submission to authority in the world, the church, and in the home all need to be seen in the context of the times. While Peter's strong counsel given to these first century Christians may seem to be outdated in our modern world, the concept of self-surrender remains the substance of the teachings of Jesus (White, 1940: 523).
In the early years of the Christian church the problem of divided homes had become very prominent. At a time when a woman had no rights at all, you could imagine the difficulties when a wife becomes a Christian while her husband was to remain faithful to the ancestral gods. For a wife to change her religion while her husband did not was unthinkable. As such, we have no idea what life would have been like for those who were brave enough to take this step (Barclay, 1976: 219).
Peter's answer to this problem comes in the form of something very simple. He doesn't tell them to leave their husbands, preach or argue, but only to be a good wife. It is to be the silent preaching of the loveliness of their lives that was to break down the barriers of prejudice and hostility, providing an opportunity of winning their husbands to the faith (Ibid). In a world of luxury and extravagance, it was to be that true spiritual beauty involving modesty, humility and chastity rather than artificial glamour that would prove to be the answer to this most difficult of conditions.
Further, Christian husbands, in this man's world were not without their obligations. Peter in 1 Peter 3: 7 makes it clear that they were to elevate their wives to their rightful place in the home by giving them due honour as those who are '…heirs together of the grace of life. Each partner needs to consider the other and in this way the prayers of those involved would never be hindered.
Peter concludes his thoughts by suggesting that the marks of a Christian life are not only seen by living in harmony with one another, but by loving each other and by being compassionate and humble. However, 1 Peter 3: 15 says that'…we [also] need to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.'
He says in 4: 1-6 that we are not to be controlled by the past. People who have been born again through faith in Jesus are new creatures in Christ. The past is now buried (Wiersbe, 1991: 832). Furthermore life is to be too short to waste it on Godless living, especially knowing that one day we will be called to account for the lives we have lived. No matter how difficult life may be, we must remain faithful.
He says, Take time to pray.
Use your gifts and talents to serve others
Be prepared for the future
Peter is making it clear to his readers in 4: 12-19 that a 'fiery trial' was about to come to the church. He says while we are to expect it, we are to use it as an opportunity to witness for Christ and in all things seek to glorify God.
As already noted, at the time he was writing, Nero was subjecting the Church to awful persecutions. Trials resulting from loyalty to Jesus were to be inevitable as Christians were placed in conflict with the Gods of Rome. Christians were being burned every night in Nero's gardens. It looked as if the devil were about to devour the fledgling Church. This was a 'fiery trial' in every sense of the word, but God would use its heat to burn out the dross and leave the pure gold. This was to be seen in the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the length and breadth of the Empire.
Down through history the records are replete with persecutions against those who followed the apostolic beliefs of the early church. Many of these events were to have been more brutal than those carried out by the emperors of Rome. This was to see millions down through the centuries subjected to every conceivable kind of torture leading to our modern day.
Because the world hates Christ, persecution would seem to be inevitable. This belief is confirmed by the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3: 12 where he says that '…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.'
The enemy is pictured as a roaring lion seeking his prey (1 Peter 5: 8) Sometimes he is pictured as an angel of light, at another time as a serpent, always seeking whom he may devour.
Peter's last words in his letter was to exhort the leaders of the church to care for the flock, not to Lord it over them, but to serve them and to be examples to them (1 Peter 5: 3). As this aging apostle presents these thoughts, I am sure that the words of Jesus in John 21 were to ring out loud and clear where he was admonished to 'feed my sheep'.
Christians in every age have needed this tender encouragement from one who knew what trials and suffering were all about. His words bring about the conviction that man cannot live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. His exhortations and warnings, his words of faith and courage were needed by every soul right down through the ages of time as they were to be continually admonished to live a holy life in hard times.
Alexander, P & D. (1999) The Lion Handbook to the Bible. Oxford, England: Lion Publishing plc
Barclay, W. (1976) The Letters of James and Peter - Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press
Mears, H. C. (1983) What the Bible is All About. Ventura, CA USA: Regal Books.
Nichols, F. D. (1957) The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary. Washington DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association
White, E. G. (1940) The Desire of Ages. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association
Wiersbe, W. (1991) With the Word. Nashville,Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
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